It’s almost obligatory to write something about the new Localism Bill – after all it’s going to have a huge effect on the world of local government – and I suppose the real question is exactly how local is it?
Before saying anything else, I have to agree with Anthony from DemSoc who blogged about exactly how arcane the wording is on this – anyone would think they didn’t want the public reading it…if they really want communities to get involved then they really need to use better language than this. As it stands right now anyone who is not a lawyer will run the other way….
Which would be a shame because devolving more power to local government and to the neighbourhoods we all live in is, in my view, a very very good thing. Democracy makes most sense to us when it affects our day-to-day lives and if we want to get more people involved as active citizens then we need to show them the effect that they can have on their local environment. I am just not sure how much this bill achieves that. You can get better analysis on this here at the LGIU and it’s also worth reading the briefing stuff from the CLG – I am just going to make a few notes of my own:
General power of competence
- You might say that this is a long time coming, but councils will have all the rights of individuals under this bill – which really gives them the freedom to operate in a far more common-sense way than before, with respect to contracts e.t.c. What’s not clear to me is where people actually want to apply this, so I will be reading and listening a bit more to understand this.
Petitions – gone
- I think it’s a real shame that the obligations around petitions have been repealed – a lot of work has gone into doing something that made a simple aspect of democratic engagement available to a lot of people. I imagine the story here is around not compelling councils to choose how they talk to the public. But as they do this in a number of other areas you have to conclude that someone just didn’t like petitions (they’ve gone from Number 10 as well – are we sensing a pattern?). It looks like the government is exercising its principled objection to telling councils how they should engage with their citizens – and that might be laudable. But the government is doing precisely the opposite to this in many other ways – so lets move on to the issue of referendums…
Or not gone
- That’s right – it seems like the mechanism for triggering a referendum will be a petition – with various strictures on what that petition looks like. It will be interesting to see how the guidance for this works out and whether councils will be encouraged to try to adapt the schemes they have in the main part been working to set up over the last few months.
Community right to challenge
- There was a lot of speculation about whether or not definitions of community and neighbourhood were what was holding the bill up, but if this was the case then they have solved that by sidestepping it completely. On the one hand this seems like common sense – it’s an impossible task. However, it concerns me to see the potential of so much power being devolved without any kind of democratic process really getting a look in. There is no requirement for either representation or representativeness in this section and I am not sure how this marries up with the idea of the councillor as the community champion, which has been mentioned before. There is another way of looking at that point, however, which is to question whether one of the intentions is to renew local democracy outside of the party political system that we have at the moment – but that might be a bit too much to imagine…
- Personally I dislike the language here as well – challenge – this is not a co-productive terms its an adversarial one and I think its badly chosen. It may well be this is just another feature of poor drafting but its still a shame not to outline a more co-operative relationship in this wording
Who is a public authority?
- But when it comes down to it there is a very broad definition of who can run stuff and the bill even allows for the Secretary of State to confer public authority status on other bodies – which is, I guess, intended to support new parish type organisations. It keeps the goal posts moving as to what you need to do in order to be recognised and I think relies on awful lot more trust in the system than we have currently in order to make this work well
But does representation matter when it comes to running community assets? Errr….I think yes. It’s not enough to say that the people who want to be involved will be involved and that the rest should be passive recipients if we are talking about services which are core to a community. All the reasons why we ask councils to consult and why we make decisions on the basis of representative democracy still apply and removing these at the neighbourhood level may work for some, but is not going to work for us all as you still have the issue as to how you are going to connect all these smaller units into a coherent decision making whole that speaks for the entire community and not just a specific group. So for me the Localism Bill is light on local democracy. This Simon Jenkins piece says much the same thing and is worth a read.
Democracy is both expensive and inconvenient and the need for representativeness is clearly urking when you just want to get on and do stuff. You can’t just act – you need to get consensus to act and often this dilutes purpose. When you are trying to operate at an amorphous community level across thousands of tiny groups all across the country – many that don’t even exist yet then its even harder. And of course when you have no money to ease any of this its even more difficult. Against this backdrop is this Bill a good first step to passing more power to communities? I’m really not sure – I think that ultimately ducking the issue of defining what a community is and being clearer about what they might do is a big hindrance, and the lack of democratic structure from the start of this will limit scalability of what is proposed. However – their are inklings of change here and I guess that’s whats to be appreciated. We shall have to wait and see what the Lords make of it.